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Review: The Wonder

Here I am, checking another last-minute item off my 2017 reading challenge with Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder.

About the book: Nurse Lib Wright trainedthewonder under the famous Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, but three years later her career has come down to spending two weeks with an impoverished family in Ireland, making sure an eleven year-old girl doesn’t eat. Anna, the “miraculous” child who claims to have been surviving for four months without food, has been generating a lot of attention. She has fans and believers knocking on the door every day, but there are skeptics as well, and even worse, the folk who accuse the family of terrible trickery or abuse. Lib and another nurse have been called in to watch over the child every moment of every day for two weeks, to set the public straight at last on whether or not any morsel of food is passing into Anna O’Donnell’s mouth. Lib expects to have discovered the trick to the ruse within a matter of hours, or days at most, but instead she encounters many surprises. As the first week turns into the second, Lib questions what she thought she knew, what her job requires, and how far a caretaker should go to ensure her patient’s health.

“How could the child bear not just the hunger, but the boredom? The rest of humankind used meals to divide the day, Lib realized– as reward, as entertainment, the chiming of an inner clock. For Anna, during this watch, each day had to pass like one endless moment.”

The narrator’s skepticism is over-the-top in the beginning. From the premise of the book alone, I knew that there was some question, some mystery, as to whether Anna was indeed a miracle. Lib is so certain that she is not, and that someone in the house is slipping food to her in a way that the nurses will easily detect, that she is completely blinded to other possibilities. It is not until her mind opens to other suggestions that Lib becomes an interesting character. Her doubt makes her more dynamic. She quickly grew on me then, though I did not particularly like her until this predictable line on page 11 (more than a third of the way through the book, my only real complaint about The Wonder):

“It was then, sitting up in the dark, that it occurred to her for the first time: What if Anna wasn’t lying?”

And yet, even in those hundred-plus pages before the characters become so much more sympathetic, the mystery of Anna’s health drives the reader forward. The Wonder is set in mid 1800’s Ireland, touches on the seven year famine of only a few years before, and makes the reader fully aware of every bite they eat while reading. It raises awareness for those people who cannot eat, who cannot afford to eat, who choose not to eat. It brushes against the history of nursing, and the legality that’s tied to healthcare. The Wonder is rooted in Irish customs, filled with historic ways of life and turns of phrase from that country’s culture, and yet its topics feel relevant today, across oceans. There are still eating disorders, parents making choices for their children, children becoming unwittingly involved in problems far bigger than themselves. Donoghue does an excellent job of grounding this novel in the past without alienating modern readers.

“That was what hunger could do: blind you to everything else.”

But the most notable element for me is the religion found within the book. The Wonder is a perfect example of a novel that deals heavily with religion– in this case, Catholicism– without becoming inaccessible or burdensome to readers of other denominations. It neither advocates for or against the religion, though it contains key characters from both sides of the debate. Even though Anna’s and Lib’s experiences with religion have shaped them and play important roles in the events of this story, the reader does not close the book with a sense that Catholicism is “right” or “wrong,” or that any of The Wonder‘s characters have been especially victimized or liberated by their religion or lack thereof. The focus lies on the characters, not their church. It’s a refreshing view.

“That had probably been the making of the man. Not so much the loss itself as his surviving it, realizing that it was possible to fail and start again.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had only read Donoghue’s Room before picking up The Wonder, which I enjoyed though it didn’t send me out immediately searching for more books by the same author. However, The Wonder came as a pleasant surprise– it’s nothing like Room, but it’s a strong novel anyway. Some authors tend to write the same worlds and stories over and over again with surface changes only, but The Wonder proved to me that Donoghue has a good range, and it encouraged me to keep an eye out for more Donoghue books I might want to check out in the future. None of her other already-published books are calling out to me, but I’ll definitely watch for upcoming releases.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you like reading about women who see something they don’t like in the world and set out to change it, try Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings. This one deals with racism and feminism rather than religion and health, but I think readers of either of these books would enjoy the other. They both tackle serious topics from the perspective of a woman who is used to being overlooked or looked down upon, and are packed with both history and lessons for the modern reader.
  2. If you’re looking for more Donoghue, I do suggest picking up her older novel Room if you haven’t done so already. The difficult themes handled here are rape and imprisonment, but different though Room is from The Wonder, its subjects are handled just as tastefully and powerfully. Also, the novel is narrated primarily from the young child’s point of view, which adds an extra level of intrigue to an unusual situation.
  3. If you’re most interested in Anna’s part of the story and want a YA option for further reading on negative adult influence toward the children in their care, try Robin Roe’s A List of Cages, narrated from two teen perspectives and focused on the abuse of the foster system. This one also deals with mental health in children.

Coming up next: I have several short classics coming up as I work through the rest of my reading challenge list. I usually don’t review classics, but since I’ll have more than one this month I’m going to post mini-reviews for each of them instead of longer paragraphs in my monthly wrap-up. I’m currently reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, an epistolary novel set in 1930’s Georgia and focusing on racism.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: The Good Daughter

I’ve been vaguely wanting to try one of Karin Slaughter’s books for a few months now, so when I saw her newest release, The Good Daughter, on the New Books shelf at my local library, I picked it up on a whim even though Spooky Books Month (aka October) has passed.

thegooddaughterAbout the book: When Samantha (Sam) and Charlotte (Charlie) were young, their lives were ripped apart. Two men in ski masks with a debt to settle came to their door, looking to cause some trouble with their father, Rusty Quinn, hated lawyer and protector of the hideously guilty. Rusty wasn’t home at the time, but that didn’t stop the bad men from taking out their anger on the rest of the family. Twenty-eight years later, the two Culpepper men that Charlie identified as the culprits are 1) dead, and 2) on death row. But a school shooting at the local middle school brings the remnants of Charlie’s family back together, and a single, unexpected thread ties this shooting to the horrors of Charlie’s past. In both cases, the truth seems obvious from the start, but the truth will turn out to be messier than anyone expected.

“You could only ever see a thing when you were standing outside of it.”

This book is not a thriller. It’s barely a mystery. You might call it horror, if heinous fictional crimes horrify you. At it’s core, this novel is a sort of extreme family drama, an exploration of unusual characters and the rough sides of their lives. It’s a slow-burn crime novel for the reader who’s more interested in the madmen and their survivors than in the endless twists and turns of a fast-paced plot. The Good Daughter is a long novel, and it focuses primarily on the gray area of morality.

“The hairs on the back of her neck rose up. She always felt this way when she came into the Holler. It wasn’t only the sense of not belonging, but the knowledge that the wrong turn, the wrong Culpepper, and physical danger would no longer be an abstract concept.”

Because the novel is so character-driven, it relies on intrigue rather than suspense to propel the reader through the story, and the ease with which the reader keeps turning pages depends on his/her interest in the main characters– the Quinn family members. This made the book a little harder for me to work through because I didn’t like Charlie. You know those characters in horror movies who run in the wrong direction and then fall down a lot for no apparent reason? And when they finally get out of the danger zone they stupidly run back in? That’s what Charlie’s like. I know fiction is boring if nobody ever does what they’re not supposed to, but I just can’t like a character who makes the wrong choice every time, knows it’s wrong, and can’t offer any explanation other than “I had to.” The secrets of Charlie’s past do eventually shed some light on her recent behavior, and there were certainly moments when I felt utterly pitiful about the tragedies of her childhood, but it was never quite enough to reconcile me to the complete ridiculousness of some of her actions.

But the plot is engaging, and the writing is engaging. Even before it’s clear what the mystery is, the reader feels the pull to know more because it’s clear something isn’t right, even if we’re not sure how it’ll play out. The blurred line between “good” and “bad” makes everyone in the novel infinitely more interesting; it’s so hard to know who to trust, and which characters are not as they first appear. Legality and morality do not go hand in hand. The good guys are corrupt, the bad guys walk free, and Rusty stands in the middle, forgiving everyone and confusing the reader’s sense of right and wrong.

“A trial is nothing but a competition to tell the best story. Whoever sways the jury wins the trial.”

The twenty-eight years between The Good Daughter‘s key crimes allow for an even richer sense of characterization. We see some people grow and change, we learn things about the people that are gone that weren’t revealed earlier, and we see a progression of motives. Almost every character undergoes significant alteration in the course of the novel, which gives this book its sense of realness and keeps the reader going even when the plot stalls. Again, let me point out that this is a book you read for the characters, because the mystery wrapped up in their lives is only something to be stumbled upon as the subjects piece themselves back together.

“Their adult selves might very well be strangers, but there were certain things that age, no matter how cunning, could not wear away.”

On a final note, there are a lot of repetitions in this book– repeated words and phrases, whole passages lifted from one chapter and planted in another. In my opinion, there’s value in showing the same scene from multiple perspectives when each telling shares something new. But there’s also a point, especially in a book I’m reading for the first time, when I get tired of feeling like I’m already rereading before I’ve even reached the end of the novel. The sort of parallels and contrasts that become apparent in scenes that require repetitions are most interesting to the readers who will notice a repeated scene with only a couple of key words to go on. The plethora of regurgitated words in this book feel like an insult; the author does not trust the reader to make connections, and is trying to do too much of the reader’s work instead of trusting the reader to make the necessary connections. This is the biggest flaw of The Good Daughter, and is especially noticeable because it’s the only real problem with the writing style. Slaughter has a wonderful sense of detail, always sharing just the right things to offer insight into character and hiding the clues that’ll come back later with just enough misdirection. The crimes she describes and the ways they fit together are completely engaging and virtually unforgettable. The only issue with the language is that the repetitions cause striking descriptions to become stale after frequent use.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. One of the big reveals I guessed, but one I missed completely. In the end, I know that the details that will stick with me from this novel are the secrets that will take the fun out of a reread. Other than the repetitions though, I did like Slaughter’s writing, so I think I’ll try again with another of her novels and hope that it’ll be an even better experience.

Further recommendations:

  1. Gillian Flynn writes great suspense novels with The Good Daughter‘s sort of horrifying grit. I suggest Sharp Objects or Dark Places, especially if you appreciate Slaughter’s characterization of Charlie. These are novels that are both character-driven and fast-paced, with suspenseful plots on the surface and a depth of more challenging themes and developments running beneath.
  2. Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water is a great choice of character-driven mystery for the serious crime reader who’s more interested in intricate weavings of character history and motives than fast-paced twists and reveals. This is a book for the reader of unlikable characters and the stickiness of truth and power.
  3. The Lying Game by Ruth Ware is another slow-burn mystery that’s more insightful than frightening. It also features two related crimes, one from years past that is dredged up by a recent catastrophe. This one is also very atmospheric.

What’s next: I’m just starting Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season. It’s been a busy month for me so far, which means my reading has been slower than usual, but I think it’ll pick up now as the holiday season approaches. All I know about The Bone Season so far is that it’s a fantasy novel at the beginning of an ongoing series, and it will fulfill a slot in my reading challenge. I’ve heard good things about the world-building, so I hope it will surprise me with its greatness. I need a great, quick book to get me back in the swing of things.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Truth About Forever

I could have chosen a picture book from way back to fill the “book from your childhood” slot in my 2017 reading challenge, but why go the easy route, even this late in the game? So I decided to reread my first ever Sarah Dessen novel, The Truth About Forever. I was 11 or 12 the first time I read this, and I did read it multiple times in those first few years, but it’s been a long time now. I wanted to find out if it was still one of my favorites. The verdict: it definitely is.

About the book: Macy saw her dad die. thetruthaboutforeverShe was there. If she had been with him just a few minutes earlier, she might have been able to get him help in time– or at least she might have had one last conversation with him before the unexpected end. That was over a year ago, but Macy and her family still haven’t learned how to cope. Macy and her mother strive for perfection and control in the aftermath, to keep themselves busy and to prevent any more horrible surprises. But when Macy takes over her perfect boyfriend’s perfect job for the summer while he’s gone, things really start to unravel. The job, it turns out, is not perfect for Macy. The one that is comes out of nowhere, in the form of a catering company. At first glance, Wish Catering is a disorganized mess, but its employees just might be able to guide Macy through her twisted path of grief with their whirlwind of controlled chaos.

“I am not a spontaneous person. But when you’re alone in the world, really alone, you have no choice but to be open to suggestions.”

This is a book that never gets old for me, apparently. I loved it for the story line when I was younger, and now that I’m wise enough to see through to the mechanics of the book, I still like what I see. There’s no single fantastic element I can point out that makes it so great; it’s just one of those books that has all the right pieces in their proper places. Everything works as it should, and it’s a worthwhile picture once it’s all together. Each of the characters is unique and important in their own way. The villains are human and sympathetic, and even the good guys make mistakes. All of the details mesh together, from the “Gotcha!” game to the Armageddon discussions, to the used-parts sculptures and the refurbished ambulance. Nothing feels like a cheesy and obvious plot device, although it’s all working toward the same themes.

“I just think that some things are meant to be broken. Imperfect. Chaotic. It’s the universe’s way of providing contrast, you know? There have to be a few holes in the road. It’s how life is.”

I think the biggest success in The Truth About Forever is the focus on coping with grief. Readers are rooting for the romance, but that’s crafted carefully under the umbrella of taking new chances, appreciating what used to be, but building something new from what’s left. Macy’s fear and sadness after losing her dad, and the struggle with perfectionism that grows from those emotions, are always at the forefront; when Macy befriends the male lead, there’s real substance in their conversations rather than a corny, forced romance. Love is secondary, and that’s what makes this one so strong.

“Grief can be a burden, but also an anchor. You get used to the weight, to how it holds you to a place.”

“That was the thing. You never got used to it, the idea of someone being gone. Just when you think it’s reconciled, accepted, someone points it out to you and it just hits you all over again, that shocking.”

I also think Dessen makes a wise decision with the level of honesty in this book. There are lies, of course, because any book about truth needs that balance, but it’s so refreshing for teen characters to be honest instead of playing games. Well, I mean, the honesty is part of a Truth game, but after the first round or two of the game, it feels like an excuse to talk openly rather than a real challenge. What I mean is, no one’s trying to impress their crush by pretending to be someone they’re not. I’m partial to that sort of blunt reality, especially in romance.

It’s like Gilmore Girls, wholesome but not in a cheesy and/or boring way. There are great messages in here for grieving teens, for perfectionists, for anyone struggling to accept who they are and take a chance on being themselves. And it’s fun uncovering them.

If there’s anything I might complain about with this book, it’s Macy. Now that I’m past high school senior age, she no longer seems much like a high school senior to me. (Or soon-to-be senior, I suppose, since the book takes place over the summer). She’s supposed to be a smart girl, and she is, but she’s also confused all the time. Many of her conversations include at least one instance of her needing to ask for clarification on what the other person is talking about. If she lacks strength at times, the reasons are apparent, but I will never fully understand her delusion of thinking that the way her mother treats her at times is an acceptable form of parenthood. There isn’t always a lot a child can do about bad parenting, but for a child of this age she should at least understand that her mother is doing it wrong. Especially if it’s a change as a the result of a recent grief, which suggests that most of her childhood was different. It wasn’t quite enough for me to find Macy truly annoying this time around, just… a little less impressive than I remembered.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I just love the Wish Catering crew. They’re funny and wise and… ordinary. They’re awkward and weird, they make mistakes, and they just feel more real than most secondary characters do. This book is the reason I’ve read almost all of Dessen’s books, and continue to pick them up, even though I’m past the age where YA contemporary/romance really appeals to me. I’m so glad I reread this one, and I will definitely read it again. Maybe I should reread a Dessen book every year. Or maybe I should just reread any old favorite once a year– around Thanksgiving, like this one was, to appreciate past loves and my reading growth. Rereading The Truth About Forever was too fun an experience to let go without establishing a new tradition.

Further Recommendations:

  1. If you’re looking for more Sarah Dessen, I suggest some of her earlier books more strongly, like This Lullaby, Keeping the Moon. Just Listen is probably the best contender if you like The Truth About Forever, because it has that same sort of mild romance under dealing with a past trauma, although the story is entirely different (as far as I remember. I really want to reread this one now, too).
  2. If you’re looking for more YA about dealing with grief– and especially with a missing father– try Emily Henry’s A Million Junes. This one is brand new in 2017 with a magical realism twist, but the main characters’ banter is hilarious, the messages are powerful and relevant, and the plot is certain to surprise. I’ve never read a book with a stronger father/daughter relationship that also feels so realistic.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Karin Slaughter’s latest mystery/thriller The Good Daughter, which is my first Slaughter novel. Parts of it feel pretty fictional to me so far, but the events are completely captivating and the writing style keeps pulling me back in. There have already been several murders and a girl buried alive, so at least it’s not boring. I can’t wait to see where it’s going. Stay tuned.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Clockwork Dynasty

I don’t often read about robots or artificial intelligence. Humans are interesting enough, and even fictional revelations of humanity can be relevant in real life, while (in my life, at least) encounters with robots are all but nonexistent. Every now and then though, I like to pick up a book out of my normal range, and with Daniel H. Wilson’s The Clockwork Dynasty, I found an automaton book that actually shocked me.

About the book: In early 1700s Russia, two theclockworkdynastyavtomat are awakened. They are brother and sister, a clockwork man whose life goal is justice, and a small woman whose dedication is logic. They are meant to serve the tsar, Peter the Great, and to succeed to “eternal tsardom” when he dies. Instead, they are exiled, and will spend hundreds of years traveling the world and trying to fulfill their life goals while keeping their true identities secret. In present day US, a researcher of clockwork artifacts forces her way too close to the truth of the avtomat, and begins to learn about a secret existence hiding amongst humanity. When her course clashes with the clockwork man’s, the two reveal and seek great secrets– the long extent of the avtomat history, the reason they’re dying out now, and how to revive them– before their mysteries are lost forever.

“New frontiers are waiting to be explored, no matter what the schoolteachers say or how many books have been written. Maps are just a lie we tell ourselves to feel safe.”

The Clockwork Dynasty utilizes a back-and-forth format, alternating chapters of Peter’s (the avtomat man’s) past and June’s (the human researcher’s) present. This gives the reader a rich sense of the different time periods at play in the narration and the variety of countries involved, as well as the dual perspectives of humanity and avtomat. Peter and June both narrate their chapters in the first person, and their similarities and differences are striking.

“We came striding out of the past, yet are bones are made of the future.”

“Most people are too caught up in the present to care about the past. But when I look at something old, when I touch it, I feel like I’m reaching into another world. A place with secrets. So, yes, part of the reason I’m helping you is because I’m curious.”

Fortunately, the characters are just as remarkable individually as they are in comparison. The full cast is wide, featuring both humans and avtomat, and although the narration is limited to two perspectives, the reader is provided a clear view of several main players. Peter’s sister, for instance, stands just outside of the major plot line, but she gives the reader a fuller sense of clockwork life through which we can better understand which of Peter’s quirks are facets of avtomat and which are his own personality. The brother/sister dynamic between clockwork creatures is highly intriguing because they are not siblings in the same way that humans are. There are also friendships and enmities within the wider avtomat population, which are equally interesting, though moreso for the secrets they reveal about the avtomat history and secrets. There is no romance in this novel, though at times the dialogue leans toward innuendos that feel oddly placed for asexual creatures. I rarely seek out books without romance– and yet, there is no romance whatsoever within this novel, and it is stronger for it. Any sort of side plot featuring a love story would have felt forced and unnatural, and I found that the rest of the not-quite-human relationships provided all the emotion I needed.

“I think we are but two small pieces of interlocking machinery in the great, faceless mechanism of the world.”

This book was described to me as a “science fiction thriller,” which I suppose I would agree with for lack of a better genre to name. The pacing, however, is not what I would call typical thriller pacing. There are only a few action scenes that were full of excitement and suspense; though there is a lot of action in the book, the intricate level of detail and elaborate prose slows down the pace. The reveals don’t kick up the reader’s adrenaline and keep him/her on the edge of his/her seat, but they’re undeniably surprising and each one opens up new ways to think about this fictional world and ultimately about the real world. I don’t truly believe that avtomat have been hiding in plain sight for thousands of years, but I do believe that the past contains mysteries that are still relevant today, and that present and future advancements in science are capable of revealing what has never been known or even seen before. The novel uses ideas like these to keep the story of clockwork lives connected to reality, and it plants beautiful ideas of life and reason into the framework of the plot. So while there are plenty of battle scenes and literal races for the truth, this is a book for the contemplative reader, and the reader more tolerant of flowery prose.

“‘We fall through the years,’ he continues, ‘like dust motes through a shaft of sunlight. We dance, each of us reflecting the same brilliance. And though we spiral into darkness, the light remains.'”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I was a bit skeptical when I picked this one up, but it was definitely a risk that payed off in the end. This level of unexpected enjoyment is why I continue to pick up books that sound just outside of my normal reading range. Occasionally, I learn that I like something odd and surprising, like science fiction thrillers. I don’t know that I’ll be reading anything further from this author (although anything is possible), but I do know that I’ll be approaching books that I wouldn’t normally read with a more open mind in the future, which was the goal. I highly recommend exploring genres you don’t normally reach for, because those are the books with the greatest power to impress.

Further recommendations:

  1. Ernest Cline’s Ready player One is a faster-paced science fiction thriller. This one’s about a near future dystopia in which much of the world lives primarily inside a virtual reality instead of actual reality. There’s an on-going challenge inside this virtual oasis, a game-within-the-game, that can change everything–if only one knows enough about 80s pop culture to find the clues and best the creator.
  2. Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter is another fast-paced sci-fi thriller. The main character of this one is a scientist with the skill to solve the mystery of dark matter– and use it to explore alternate realities. The twists in this novel are mind-boggling. If you’re looking for something completely unpredictable with high stakes and high suspense, this is it. You don’t even have to know anything about science or dark matter to love with this one.
  3. The Magicians by Lev Grossman is an urban fantasy adventure story with some strong similarities to The Clockwork Dynasty. If you like the idea of a secret world hiding within the bounds of everyday reality, this is a top contender about powerful magicians, in which the magic is a science to be studied rigorously rather than the usual (and frustrating) inexplicable miracle. This is a character-driven start to a trilogy that spans worlds and prompts the reader to view reality with an open mind.

What’s next: I’m currently reading both Saga: Book One (a compilation of the first three volumes of the graphic novel series Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples) and Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, a classic serial killer thriller with the perfect amount of horror for Halloween. I’ll probably be reviewing both of these next week, but it’s anyone’s guess as to which one I’ll be finishing first.

What spooky and thrilling reads are you exploring this Halloween?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I loved Neil Gaiman’s Coraline as a child (although the other mother’s button eyes particularly terrified me), and when I read his new Norse Mythology book earlier this year I was inspired to pick up a few more of his novels. I had high hopes for The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and it definitely lived up to my expectations.

theoceanattheendofthelane

About the book: A man is attending a funeral near his childhood home, and decides afterward to detour down the lane where his family used to live. Without knowing quite why, he passes the place where his parents’ house once stood and continues down the lane. As he nears Hempstock Farm at the very end, he begins to remember things from his past, about the girl who lived there at the end of the lane, who called the fish pond behind the farm house her ocean. He believes Lettie has gone to Australia, but as he visits her family and sits beside Lettie’s ocean, he undergoes a sort of daydream about what really happened to Lettie, the frightening adventure they might have shared in childhood, a dream that may or may not be a memory.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an adult novel that primarily focuses on an event from the (nameless) narrator’s seventh year. It’s a book for grown-ups about what it was like to be a kid. For that reason, I spent most of the book comparing what I would have thought of the story if I had read it for the first time as a child, and what I actually thought of it having read it for the first time just now, in my adulthood. Much like Coraline, I think that this is a book younger readers can enjoy (cautiously, because it is somewhat horrifying), although adults will find different nuggets of truth within its pages. I’m mentioning this comparison because of the magical realism aspect of this novel– it does that great thing where the reader can decide for him-/herself how much of the magic is real, and how much is a child’s nightmare, an elaborate dream-gone-wrong, a fictional elaboration of hard truths that a seven year-old would not have understood or known how to engage with. As a child, I would have taken every single detail of the narrator’s dream/memory for truth, but as an adult, I enjoyed seeing the blurred line between what was true and what a child might imagine and accept as truth. Ursula Monkton may actually be a monster, or she may just be a mean woman having an affair with the boy’s father. Maybe Lettie, the boy’s one friend, really does abandon him to live in Australia, or maybe there’s a more fantastic explanation for her absence. It’s up to the reader.

“I wondered where the illusion of the second moon had come from, but I only wondered for a moment, and then I dismissed it from my thoughts. Perhaps it was an afterimage, I decided, or a ghost: something that had stirred in my mind, for a moment, so powerfully that I believed it to be real, but now was gone, and faded into the past like a memory forgotten, or a shadow into the dusk.”

I’d also like to talk about how unique this story is. Anyone can write about monsters, but Neil Gaiman is the only author who’s ever made me wonder if I should be afraid of a piece of cloth. “The fabric of reality” is a familiar phrase, and toward the end when things start falling apart there is a sort of philosophical use of reality as a fabric, but when Ursula Monkton first appears as something resembling  a weathered canvas tent, the reader is probably skeptical. I was skeptical. And yet, it works. Children can be afraid of anything, which allows the reader to suspend disbelief, and before long the reader is frightened right along with the narrator about what this cloth-woman can do. It’s not a technique I’ve ever seen tried before, and I found myself pleasantly surprised with the payoff.

And, of course, this is the sort of Neil Gaiman book that’s very quotable. From the first chapter to the last paragraph, Gaiman has littered this novel with little gems about looking back on one’s childhood. There were times I thought these observations might be a little too direct or cliched, but somehow they worked, coming from a man’s daydream of being a seven year-old. Here are a few more of my favorites:

“Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.”

“Nobody actually looks like what they really are on the inside. You don’t. I don’t. People are much more complicated than that. It’s true of everybody.”

“Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have, like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Magical realism is often hit-or-miss for me, and the last Gaiman novel I read (Stardust) was too episodic for my taste, so I was wary going into this one. I ended up liking it a lot more than I thought I would, especially for this time of year. It’s creepy in an unexpected way. I will be reading more of Gaiman’s books after this success, but I’m not sure which one I’ll go for next. Any suggestions for me?

Further recommendations:

  1. Coraline, also by Gaiman, is a great little horror book that’s more young-reader friendly. The “other mother” in here was actually pretty scary for me as a child, but I loved it. If you’re looking for more like The Ocean at the End of the Lane to simultaneously remind you of your childhood and give you a scare, Coraline is a great pick. And if you know a young reader who likes spooky stories, it’s a good fit for him or her, too.
  2. If you’re looking for another magical tale of childhood that’s fun to read even as an adult, try C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Boy, the first novel in his Chronicles of Narnia. Gaiman mentions the Narnia books in TOatEotL, and I agree that those books would be a great fit for fans of this one. The main characters are children who travel unknowingly to a fantasy place, and accidentally set big things in motion with their explorations.

Coming up next: I’ll be reviewing Daniel H. Wilson’s The Clockwork Dynasty next, a science fiction thriller (after loving Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter I had to try this genre again). In early 1700s Russia, a pair of automata are “born,” and three centuries later their existence coincides with a researcher’s personal quest to solve the mystery of an “avenging angel.”

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Midnight at the Electric

Jodi Lynn Anderson’s Peaches trilogy was one of the significant contemporary YA stories of my teen years. I hold it in such high esteem that I’m afraid of reading it again so many years later, in case my opinions would be different and my memories tarnished. But when I saw Anderson’s latest release, Midnight at the Electric, I thought this would be a great chance to revisit a beloved author through a new story, so I picked it up as soon as it came into my library.

midnightattheelectricAbout the book: Adri is preparing for life on Mars, to spend her remaining years building a new home for future generations. By 2065, Earth is a used-up place, but when Adri moves in with her distant cousin, Lily, for the duration of her final round of mission training, she discovers that there are still things to love about the planet she’s ready to leave behind. She and Lily find letters and a journal that connect them to a history they had never known themselves to be a part of. Through written words, they experience post-war England from the 1910s, and farm life in Oklahoma from the 1930s, when the Dust Bowl ravaged that part of the country. The three young women lead very different lives, but the stories line up to give Adri the answers she needs about her imminent trip to Mars.

“Time matters. Time matters. In nature’s calendar, midnight is the breath between day and night. It’s only at this hour that neither the sun’s rays nor the moon’s great pull can interfere with the electrical currents.”

There’s a lot going on in this book. We see a giant tortoise from the Galapagos Islands, various family dynamics, a carnival, the Dust Bowl, war heroes and pretenders, international travel, electricity, old age and dementia, the deterioration of a planet and construction of life on another, wealth and poverty, sickness, scars, the follies of youth, friendship, preparation for space travel, and so on. There are so many big themes, settings, and discussion points folded within this story, but at heart it’s a coming-of-age tale.

“Tomorrow feels like flipping a coin. Every moment I wonder if I’ve done the right thing, but tomorrow we begin to find out, and I almost can’t stand the thought of that.”

There’s also a lot going on in the formatting. Adri’s perspective is shown through a present, third-person narration that provides Adri’s actions and thoughts in “real time.” But through Adri, we also have two other perspectives in additional formats– Catherine’s sections are narrated first through a journal she kept, and then through letters she wrote after leaving her journal behind; Lenore’s sections are narrated entirely through her letters. Each section feels like the present (or recent past written from the present), though many years divide some of the characters. The formatting can be a lot to juggle, but it is all connected through Adri’s experiences.

” ‘The dust is terrible,’ he said after a long spell. ‘I know that. But… the rest of the world can be terrible too.’ “

If you can keep an eye on the raveling thread between all those areas of detail, the driving force of the story comes through the emotion in putting the pieces together. The reader learns in bite-sized snippets about life in dust storms, or after a war, or on a deteriorating planet. None of it is told exhaustively enough to become boring or overwhelming, but rather scratches the surface just enough to draw the reader’s attention, teach him/her something new, and move on to the next theme. The emotion between each is the glue that holds the story together.

“You become as strong as you have to be, don’t you think? When you’re trying to protect someone you love, you’ll do anything.”

There’s some romance (tastefully done, developing over time with each character unique and human and lovable), but there’s also heartbreak, friendship, adventure, betrayal… almost every emotion imaginable. (I realize adventure is not an emotion, but the combination of fear and excitement involved in adventure is.) In short, emotion is the thing Anderson does best here. In this coming-of-age story, with so much going on in the background, it can be hard to pinpoint a main plot. You could argue that Adri’s upcoming trip to Mars is the main plot arc, but that’s just one deadline among many. Even Adri seems to understand that the reader’s interest lies elsewhere– she’s regularly telling Lily that she needs to find the rest of the letters and records because she’s curious, because she likes to finish things, because she feels that there’s more to the story. It’s as though she’s urging the reader to keep turning pages, trying to convince the reader that he/she is curious too, reminding that there will be more to the story. A book with a strong plot doesn’t need those tricks. What it lacks in plot, though, Midnight at the Electric makes up for in emotion.

” ‘Don’t pin your hopes on something out there that doesn’t exist,’ he said, ‘or some ball of light or anything else. Pin them on me.’ “

“Grief isn’t like sadness at all. Sadness is only something that’s a part of you. Grief becomes you; it wraps you up and changes you and makes everything– every little thing– different than it was before.”

Highlighting emotion, however, introduces another problem: many of the main actions in the story happen just because the characters “feel” a certain way. They’ll have plans to do one thing, and then change their minds at the last minute because it doesn’t “feel” right. Most of the big decisions in Midnight at the Electric come down to impulse and feelings, which seems like an easy way out of rationalizing actions and fleshing out motivations.

” ‘Earth,’ Alexa finally said. ‘It’s not that great anyway.’ And they all smiled sadly. Because, of course, it was everything.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I liked the atmosphere(s) of this story more than anything else. The characters were sometimes predictable, and the tension was all over the place, but I did have a good time reading it. Although Midnight at the Electric didn’t impress me as much as I’d hoped, it also encouraged me to pick up another of Anderson’s books. I might have to check Peaches out again.

Further recommendations:

  1. In case you haven’t picked up on it already, Jodi Lynn Anderson’s YA Peaches is my favorite book by this author. If you like stories like Midnight at the Electric and are wondering where to go next, try Peaches, a story of three girls who become unlikely friends on a failing peach farm during a summer’s work that’ll affect all their lives.
  2. If it’s the crossing of characters through time that interests you (in YA), check out Ann Brashares’ My Name is Memory. This one’s about souls that are aware of their reincarnations, set on a plot that arcs over several lifetimes to culminate in one grand fight for love and life.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, from the Man Booker Prize long list. This novel is magical realism focused on a war-torn country whose inhabitants flee as a last resort, though they find that the difficulties of their country will follow them past its borders.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Stardust

After reading Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology earlier this year (and remembering how much I loved Coraline as a child), I decided I had to check out more of his books. I’ve had a few picked out, and decided to dive into Stardust this month, an adult fantasy stand-alone novel that’s short and sweet and full of adventure. It seemed like a good lead-in to The Hobbit, which I will be reading later this month.

stardustAbout the book: Dunstan Thorn sets a unique life on its adventurous course when he accepts his Heart’s Desire as rent payment from a strange and powerful man. Just shy of eighteen years later, Dunstan’s half-faerie son, Tristran, sets out past the village of Wall into the land of Faerie. He thinks he’s going to retrieve a fallen star that will win him the hand of the most beautiful girl in the village, but in Faerie nothing goes quite as planned. He meets several interesting characters along the way, some who want to help him and some that mean to thwart his plans. There’s also the matter of the fallen star possessing the form of a young lady, one who hates Tristran for his intent to trade her so he can be married. But the difficulty of Tristran’s own journey is the least of his problems– there are other creatures seeking the star, characters who will cut down anyone in their path. But even if Tristran succeeds, will the most beautiful girl in town consent to marry a shop-boy destined to be a sheep farmer in the little village of Wall?

” ‘I had thought,’ he confessed, ‘that a fallen star would probably look like a diamond or a rock. I certainly wasn’t expecting a lady.’ ‘So, having found a lady, could you not have come to her aid, or left her alone? Why drag her into your foolishness?’ ‘Love,’ he explained. She looked at him with eyes the blue of the sky. ‘I hope you choke on it,’ she said flatly.’ “

This is one of those episodic tales which, I think, require a lot more work from the author to keep the reader’s attention than traditional plot arcs. The reader must stay interested in many different “episodes” throughout the book, rather than one continuous arc, which means it’s all in the details, rather than the plot. This happens often with adventure stories, in my experience. In this case, there is the matter of the fallen star quest to tie Stardust all together, but Tristran’s search for the falling star is only one event among many. Gaiman juggles multiple characters, multiple plot lines, and many “episodes” in this one short volume.

For that reason, world-building forms the bulk of this short novel. There’s plenty going on, but it’s veiled in description of unusual place details and characters with uncommon mannerisms. The most interesting introduction for me was the addition to the story of seven brothers in the middle of killing one another in various deceitful ways, but all of the character introductions and new places are similarly packed with unusual background or sensory details to keep the reader engaged. The village of Wall and the world of Faerie seem almost tangible. Thus, the world-building is the strength of Gaiman’s Stardust.

The weakness, by contrast, is the romance. Tristran is willing to spend so much of his time and energy on this crazy quest for the girl he thinks he loves, but the reader sees from the beginning that his “love” for the beautiful Wall girl is a youthful infatuation no deeper than a preoccupation with the color of her eyes. In Faerie, he discovers that he wants something quite different for his life than manning a sheep farm with the beautiful village girl. But even when romance starts to play a role in the story for the second time, there are none of the casual little details to indicate affection; the love is necessary to the plot, and is described rather flatly, only going so far as to make its point. Books without romance can be great. Books with romance that isn’t the center of the story can also be done fantastically. But in a book like this, when romance plays such a key role in Tristran’s adventures, there need to be enough details for the love to feel as real as the world, and in that regard, Stardust fails.

But let’s talk about Tristran next.

“He was a gangling creature of potential, a barrel of dynamite waiting for someone or something to light his fuse; but no one did, so on weekends and in the evenings he helped his father on the farm, and during the day he worked for Mr. Brown, at Monday and Brown’s, as a clerk.”

Tristran is an elusive character, not especially wise or idiotic, not especially anything, really. He does take action of his own, but he is also shunted along in his journey by the actions of others. He takes things as they come, with little show of emotion. If not for his willingness to adventure, he would seem a particularly bland character. But he is willing to take chances and partake in quests and anything else required of him, and that makes him an excellent guide through a novel like this in which the reader never knows what to expect next. With such a fluid story line, the main character can’t be too rigid in his ways or the adventure won’t be possible. On his own, Tristran would be nothing more than a boring sheep farmer, but he is not on his own. He is part of Wall, and part of the Faerie realm. He is oath-bound to a fallen star. He’s capable and versatile, and ready to change the world.

Stardust feels a bit like a writer’s exercise, a foray into uncharted territory. It’s the sort of story I imagine would emerge from a writer’s hands when he/she sat down at the keyboard and decided to follow the letters wherever his/her fingers took the story, through worlds real and imagined. It could have been expanded four or five times into a thick fantasy novel if things hadn’t worked out so quickly and easily for Tristran on his quest. Personally, I would’ve followed those murderous brothers through several hundred more pages even if their story veered far beyond the point where it overlaps with Tristran’s. Instead, Stardust is a sample of fantasy– a snapshot, a tiny glimpse into the realm of the extraordinary. This one’s definitely an adult tale, so if you’re looking for an easy start into adult fantasy, Stardust would be a great way to get a feel for that genre without investing much time.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I enjoyed the journey, but I was also glad to put it behind me at the end. I’ll still be reading more Neil Gaiman books, whether this year or next I don’t know, but I’m in awe of Gaiman’s range. The three books I’ve read under his name have been so vastly different that I have no idea what to expect from further books, but I’m definitely curious enough to find out.

Further recommendations:

  1. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders is an adult magical realism novel that feels similarly episodic, and follows a scientist boy and a magical girl from childhood to adulthood, through crises of varying magnitude.
  2. The Magician’s Boy, the first book in C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, is a more apt choice for readers young and old who want another easy entrance to the fantasy genre. If you’re looking for fantasy that’s fun but not strictly adult, try Narnia; I started reading these books when I was seven, and am still enjoying them now that I’m in my twenties with an English degree. Narnia is a land where anything can happen, and all seven books are quick and engaging reads.

Coming up Next: I’m currently reading Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, a classic murder mystery (from the legendary queen of murder mysteries). This one’s about a long train ride in which a passenger is killed… meaning anyone on the train could have done it, and anyone on the train could be the next victim.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant